Q: My hamster always seems to use her house she sleeps in as her toilet too. I want her to have a clean bed, and I am at a loss as to what to do. I change the bedding every day. Is this the wrong thing to do? I have provided a “litter tray” and put some of her soiled bedding in there hoping she would get the idea, but instead she uses it as a sand bath. I would be grateful for your advice, as I love her dearly and want her to be clean and happy!
A: Hamsters are ruled by habit, which can’t be emphasized enough. If a hamster does something successfully once, he is inclined to do it the same way constantly — until a new habit takes root.
Smell is primary among hamster senses. Add this to their love of routine, and it adds up to the following as the only possible way to break a hamster of the habit you described.
You must remove everything from the hamster’s dwelling and scrub and rinse it so thoroughly that there can’t be any trace of scent from before. Set aside a tiny amount of litter soiled with urine. When you replace all the objects in the dwelling, place that litter far from where you want the hamster to sleep. This usually works, but hamster habits are very hard to break. Litter trays work for some, but not others.
The key point is that changing the bedding every day, while it seems intuitively like a good idea, is just the opposite. Every time you change the litter, your hamster will have the urge to re-habituate it, to make it her own. Changing the litter constantly exacerbates this urge. Hamsters love things to be the same — day in, day out. Sometimes we can nudge them in a different direction, but if we force our habits on them too vigorously, they just push back harder. This fierce obstinacy is also a great part of their charm!